The 2015 NFL Draft was only a month ago, but it’s never too early to start looking at prospects that will be in play for next year’s draft. This is the first installment of a series I’ll be working on over the summer, ranking the top-five quarterbacks, offensive linemen, interior defensive linemen, edge rushers, and off ball linebackers.
Let’s talk about Quarterbacks.
1. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State, JR
If you were to take a look at Hackenberg’s numbers from last year, it might feel a bit premature to have him ranked as the number one quarterback heading into the 2015 season. His 2014 tape is inconsistent, but the new offense installed by head coach James Franklin didn’t fit Hackenberg’s strengths as a passer. In 2013, as a true freshman, he played in a pro style offense under former Penn State head coach (current Houston Texans head coach) Bill O’Brien and he excelled. He took command of the offense as an eighteen year old freshman and executed the offense at an extremely high level making pre-snap adjustments, multiple reads, and processing progressions down the field. Hackenberg shows the ability to look off defenders with his eyes, opening up holes in zone defense that he picks apart with great timing and anticipation.
Hackenberg is a quarterback that can be hyper-efficient in the short to intermediate areas of the field. He possesses a cannon of an arm, capable of throwing lasers to the far boundary and can push the ball down the field with velocity. Hackenberg is an advanced passer who thrives when he’s allowed to scan the field and make precision passes with his timing and anticipation; this is part of the reason why he struggled in Franklin’s offense. Not to sound harsh, but Franklin’s offense is designed for conceptually mediocre passers. A lot of the passing plays have limited drops with simplistic, single reads where the quarterback doesn’t have to work through many progressions to find open men downfield.
One might think that simple reads would help Hackenberg increase his statistical output, but he’s a quarterback that functions better when he’s asked to execute an offense, not facilitate one. While there is a lot to like about Hackenberg, he’s not perfect. His deep ball is still a bit spotty and his footwork regressed a bit this past season, which affected his accuracy to a degree. Due to underwhelming offensive coaching and a poor supporting cast, don’t expect Hackenberg’s 2015 season to look much different from his 2014 season. However, if you’re looking for proof over whether not Hackenberg can run and excel in a pro style system, look no further than his 2013 tape as a freshman.
Hackenberg projects to be a much better NFL player than college player, and that’s why he’s my number one quarterbacks heading into the college football season. He has all the traits you want in a franchise quarterback, he just needs to be put into an offensive structure that fits his strengths.
2. Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati, RS JR
Gunner Kiel has taken a very interesting path towards becoming the starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bearcats. He flipped commitments multiple times, eventually winding up Cincinnati after transferring from Notre Dame.
In his first season as a starter, Kiel performed admirably. In Cincinnati’s Air Raid offense Kiel was asked to attack every part of the field, and he did so with accuracy. He ran through progressions in the offense while being proficient in the underneath game and intermediate portion of the field. He’s shown the accuracy to hit receivers at the far boundary and shows the necessary footwork to be accurate even though he plays almost exclusively out of the shotgun.
Kiel’s arm strength isn’t on par with Hackenberg’s but he can put enough velocity on the ball where it’s not an issue. When he tries to push the ball down the field his throws tend to hang a little bit, but it’s not very concerning. Even though Cincinnati runs an Air Raid attack, Kiel is still forced to hit throws with timing and anticipation; something he’ll be asked to do routinely once he gets to the NFL. He goes through his progressions very well and isn’t afraid to attack soft spots in zone coverage and one on one man coverage situations. He’ll throw all over the field with confidence.
When Kiel is forced to run, he’s displayed some solid athleticism, but he’ll be mistaken as a true threat on the ground. His athleticism is more practical than it is dangerous and that’s perfectly fine since he’s able to pick defenses apart from the pocket. While Kiel is only listed at 208 pounds, he looks like he has a bit more bulk than that and he has the frame to easily put on more weight.
Overall, Kiel showed a ton of promise for a first year starting quarterback. He has room to improve in terms of his downfield accuracy, but Kiel should already be considered as a first round prospect at this point with the ability to move into the top five or top ten as the season progresses.
3. Cardale Jones, Ohio State, RS JR
Hackenberg and Kiel are clearly the top two quarterbacks in my mind, this is where the talent level starts to drop off a little bit.
Cardale Jones burst onto the scene during Ohio State’s championship run, helping lead the Buckeyes to wins over Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon as they won the first ever College Football Playoff.
Due to his size and arm strength, Cardale Jones pondered making the leap to the NFL after his epic three game run, but he decided to go back to Ohio State and finish up his degree. Jones is a very intriguing quarterback prospect; physically he resembles Cam Newton with his massive 250 pounds frame, but he’s not near the athlete that Newton is. Cardale is capable of picking up yards on the ground with his legs, but he’ll never be the dynamic rusher that Newton is. Jones resembles JaMarcus Russell athletically, and his play style does too.
While the quarterbacks ranked in front of Jones (Hackenberg, Kiel) are proficient in the short area of the field, Jones is more aggressive. He has no fear throwing the ball deep down the field in an attempt to make big plays through the air. He doesn’t pick defenses apart on any level of the field, but he has shown enough functional accuracy where this isn’t a concern, yet. Any evaluation of Jones has to be taken with a grain of salt, because he’s only started three games. However it’s easy to see why NFL evaluators considered spending a draft pick on Jones after three starts, he has the size and arm strength to make him worthy of a multiyear project.
Conceptually, Jones isn’t ready yet for the NFL which is probably a major reason why he went back to school. Urban Meyer’s offense typically features one read in their passing game and if that read isn’t there, the quarterback has the ability to take off and make a play with his legs. While the offense does feature passing drops, Jones isn’t forced to read through progressions like the quarterbacks ahead of him.
Probably the most interesting note of Jones projection is the fact that he isn’t even guaranteed the starting spot for Ohio State this upcoming season. He’s going to have to battle with J.T. Barrett and (maybe) Braxton Miller for the starting job. I’ve seen people list Cardale as their top ranked quarterback going into the season, but until he wins the starting job and plays through a full season that projection doesn’t really make any sense.
Cardale is going to be one of the most polarizing prospects this season. Right now he has all the tools you look for in a starting NFL quarterback, but is lacking overall refinement. That’s probably due to the lack of realtime reps and it’ll be interesting to see if he can secure the starting job and progress through the 2015 season.
4. Jared Goff, California-Berkeley, JR
Goff is getting a lot of praise as a future franchise quarterback for the NFL, but we may need to pump the brakes a little bit on that one. There are a lot of things that Goff does well; he’s a very smart player and runs Cal’s offense with efficiency. He’s accurate in the short to intermediate area of the field and shows decent timing, synchronizing his drops with receivers coming out of their breaks through zone and man defenses. Cal utilizes a West Coast offense, and Goff is adept at running the offense within the structure that is in place. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but this is because he doesn’t really take lot of risks.
Goff’s unwillingness to take risks downfield,stems from him knowing his own (big) physical limitation: his arm strength. Goff definitely has the weakest arm of my top five quarterbacks, and he knows it himself. He’s reluctant to fire passes into zones down the field, because his balls have a bad tendency to hang in the air for a long time. When he throws to the far boundary, his throws lose velocity fairly quickly which will give defensive backs a lot of time to make plays on the ball. It’s easy to tell that Goff runs through his progressions, he’s just not as willing to capitalize on soft spots he sees downfield. Part of this lacking arm strength may be because he underwent shoulder surgery during the 2013 season. Perhaps Goff’s arm strength will get stronger another year removed from his surgery, but I’m not banking on that just yet.
Another area of weakness with Goff is the way that he handles pressure. Cal’s offensive line wasn’t very good last season and Goff showed some skittish nature in the pocket. He’s not as bad as Connor Cook in this facet, but it is still an area of weakness for him.
While Goff’s arm strength and hesitancy are problems, my biggest grief with him is his frame. The Golden Bears have him listed at 210 pounds, but I can’t imagine he weighs that much. He has a rail thin frame and if he’s going to survive in the NFL (and this season) and protect himself from further injury, it would be a good idea for him to put on weight. Perhaps adding weight will help him get a bit more velocity on his balls.
Goff has a few traits that you look for in franchise quarterbacks, most notably his accuracy and timing, but his frame, arm strength, and hesitancy are holding me back from pushing him towards the top of this list. He seems to be a #DraftTwitter darling, but I’m not ready to thrust him towards the top of my quarterback rankings.
5. Connor Cook, Michigan State, SR
Connor Cook is getting praise by some as a future franchise quarterback, but that projection is extremely premature at this point. Cook is a passer that needs everything going right within the structure of Michigan State’s offense for him to be effective, and even then his ball placement can be shaky.
Cook has solid accuracy in the short area and intermediate portion of the field, however his deep accuracy is still very much a work in progress. Out of all the quarterbacks I’ve watched so far, Cook is definitely the worst with coping with pressure. When he’s under duress he panics and makes some really, really boneheaded decisions. He has a bad tendency to force the ball out of under pressure instead of either taking a sack or throwing the ball away.
Besides having a frenetic pocket presence, Cook is also very poor throwing on the run. His need to have safe, consistent structure with his offense is going to be detriment early in his NFL career. He’s being seen as a franchise quarterback by some, but as Derrik Klassen noted, Cook is closer to Andy Dalton than he is a legitimate franchise guy. His inability to handle stress and deconstruction is a big problem right now, but luckily it’s a problem that can be fixed with more repetitions. It’s tough to bank on the fact that he’ll miraculously get better in this area, but if he does he could become a solid starter in the NFL. He’s getting compared to Matt Ryan because Ryan struggled with pressure early on in his career, but he was never as bad as Cook.
Fool’s Gold: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State, SR
Dak has gotten some praise (even by myself a few weeks ago), but he’s not really a viable quarterback prospect for the NFL. His tools (strength, athleticism) are #fun, but they’re kind of irrelevant when you try to translate what Dak is going to do in the NFL. Dan Mullen runs a preschool offense for the Bulldogs, and Prescott still manages to leave yards on the field. The passing plays use almost exclusively one step, play action drops and most of the plays are variations of four vertical concepts. Prescott isn’t ready for the NFL and he likely never will be.
Darkhorse Candidate: Josh Dobbs, Tennessee, JR
Dobbs is flying under the radar right now, but he’s really good. He hasn’t gotten much playing time at Tennessee yet, but he’s flashed some really nice skills in his limited time under center. His arm strength isn’t phenomenal (it’s about on par with Goff’s) however he doesn’t have any hesitancy when attacking holes in zones down the field. He has a very natural pocket presence as well and doesn’t get rattled easily. To cap it off, he’s got pretty good athleticism and is comfortable and fairly elusive in the open field. Dobbs will probably end up being a 2017 prospect, but he’s a guy that could rise with a solid 2015 season. If his stock rises enough, don’t be surprised to see him throw his name into the 2016 NFL Draft.
Friday Night Lights is a
bad great television show.